XCOM: Enemy Unknown preview

Graham Smith

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Jake Solomon really loves X-COM. This isn't as notable as how badly Firaxis and publishers 2K Games want you to know that he really loves X-COM. It's not just the lead designer, either. Everyone at Firaxis loves X-COM, I'm told. If someone joins the team and hasn't played X-COM, playing X-COM is their first assignment. I'm reminded repeatedly that the original game was published by MicroProse Software, and that Firaxis were born from the ruins of that company.

You can forgive their anxiety. When 2K Marin announced their own XCOM back in 2010, the internet shook with frustration. Sixteen years after the Gollop brothers' turn-based masterpiece was released, the series was returning – as a first-person shooter. It wasn't what fans wanted.

This is what we wanted. Later this year, Earth's Extraterrestrial Combat Unit will return. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is part remake of the 1994 original, and part sequel. It is developed by the company that created Civilization, under the stewardship of creative director Sid Meier. It is turnbased. It has destructible environments. It has the Geoscape. It has the Skyranger. And I'm just about to see it for the first time. The screen goes black. When it fills again I'm looking at the XCOM organisation's new headquarters.

“We call this the ant farm,” Jake says.

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The workshop. Source of 90% of the world's black market laser guns.

It's a side-on view of a vast underground base, colourful and bustling. It looks nothing like the original game. It looks beautiful. I can see the Skyranger in the hangar bay near the top. I can see soldiers wandering the halls, exercising, playing games in the rec room and visiting injured friends in the infirmary.

“This is where the player returns after every mission.”

Your lavish headquarters are also the game's menu. As Jake selects Science Lab at the top of the screen, the camera swoops in close to show the inside of the laboratory. Here you can set your science team's research goals, unlocking new weapons and equipment to help you in your fight against the aliens.

Switch to the Barracks and the camera shoots across the base. From here you can customise your soldiers' appearance, give them names and nicknames, and manage their equipment and abilities.

Inside the Situation Room, you're faced with a shadowy figure against a glitching, TV static background. XCOM is an international organisation, funded by countries around the world. If those countries are to continue giving you valuable resources, you'll need to keep them happy by occasionally bending your plans to their selfish desires. Selfish desires such as “Please launch some satellites over our country, to keep an eye out for aliens here,” and “Please stop the aliens from killing us all.” They give you scientists and other rewards for helping them, but concentrate too much on servicing those countries and your overall strategy will suffer.

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The cover system is a new addition to XCOM.

It's the Mission Control room that looks most familiar. Flick to it and the camera switches to a satellite view of Earth, spinning in space. This is the original game's fondly remembered Geoscape. From here you can scan for UFOs in regions covered by your satellites. If you find them, you can go fight them. That might mean scrambling an Interceptor to tackle the UFO in the air, assuming you've built one nearby. Or it might mean picking up to six of your best soldiers and going to fight them on the ground.

Jake does the latter. As the mission loads, the screen shows the Skyranger blasting across the sky. Like everything I've seen so far, it looks updated, but still feels a lot like the original. It's X-COM turned XCOM-nom-nom.

With the original X-COM, British game designer Julian Gollop and his brother Nick set out to create a follow-up to their game Laser Squad. Then called Laser Strike 2, they signed the game with MicroProse, who had just had enormous success with Sid Meier's Civilization. Their new publisher suggested the Gollops bring a similar scale to their next game.

Eventually released as UFO: Enemy Unknown in Europe in 1994, and in America later that same year as X-COM: UFO Defense, the game they created married the squad tactics of Laser Squad to a global strategy layer and a modern day setting. The result was an instant hit.

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Almost everything in this scene is destructible.

“If you get ten fans and you say, 'Give me the number one thing that makes it great,' you'd get 15 answers,” says Jake. “It's tough, but I would say high stakes is what XCOM is about.”

When soldiers die in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, as in its predecessors, they die for good. That doesn't sound like a big deal at first – units die in strategy games all the time. But you invest so much more in an XCOM soldier.

Let's imagine. A new recruit joins XCOM, and you name him Jimmy Doyle. He starts off as a rookie, with low stats and a lot of nerves. You customise his appearance, giving him a big nose and a scruffy face. On his first mission, he comes face to face with a Muton. A large, gorilla-like alien, the Muton uses a special ability to pound its chest and panic the inexperienced rookie. Doyle fires wildly without you telling him to, but you get him behind cover before the Muton kills him, and he survives the rest of the mission.

Doyle then levels up to Squaddie and earns himself a nickname. He's now Jimmy 'Popeye' Doyle. At this point in the original X-COM, you'd be putting points into an enormous wall of stats, but that system has completely changed. Recruits now have a small number of stats that level automatically, and when they reach Squaddie, reveal a predilection for one of four classes: Heavy, Sniper, Support or Assault.

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It's not only your soldiers who will take cover.

At each level-up, you make a decision about which of two class-specific perks to grant your recruit. It means you're making fewer choices than in the original game, but each choice is far more significant.

Popeye falls in to the Assault class, and so you give him a passive perk. Now every time he sees an enemy, the percentage chance of him scoring a critical hit goes up. In the next ten or twenty hours, you're going to take Popeye on a dozen missions. You're going to micromanage every piece of equipment he carries, every step he takes, every shot he makes. You're going to tailor the equipment available to him by the research options you've chosen back at base. You're going to shape the team around him, so that he has a Sniper for support, or a bunch of other Assault guys, or robotic heavy weapons platforms as his sidekicks. He's going to have levelled a bunch more times, and you're going to have picked a bunch more perks for him.

He's now your favourite toy out of all your toy soldiers. You've thought about him as much as you have your Khajiit in Skyrim or your Monk in Diablo III. Remember that. We'll come back to Popeye Doyle in a moment.

Jake's mission has loaded, and his squad are standing outside a petrol station. It looks like America, but the setting is generic enough that it could be anywhere. It also looks nice, but not stunning. It's much less cartoony than the original game's low resolution sprites, but the game's artists aren't aiming for gritty reality either. The characters and models look chunky, sort of like action figures.

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The new 'Man in Black' alien is almost human.

One by one, Jake orders his recruits to move up nearer the petrol pumps and take cover. He only has four soldiers along for this mission. With research, that can be upgraded to a maximum of six.

Time units, the resource that allowed you to perform actions in the original, have also gone. Now, each soldier can move once and perform a single action per turn. An action is anything from shooting a weapon to hunkering down behind something that's part of the new cover system.

Almost instantly, one of Jake's recruits spots a couple of Sectoids. We're introduced to them by a short, in-engine cutscene. The Sectoids look less childlike than in the original game, but they're clearly inspired by the same source material: they're grey, skinny, with big heads and bug eyes.

One Sectoid scuttles inside the petrol station, while another takes cover behind a nearby car. Jake finds his Sniper, and using a special grapplehook, has her climb on to the ceiling of the petrol station. She'll come in useful later.

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I would rename her 'Buddy Russo'.

Back down below, a few shots have been exchanged. The Sectoid inside the building is using a special ability to form a psychic link with the one taking cover outside, boosting its stats.

These are Sectoids, however, the weakest alien in the game. Jake has his Heavy lay down suppressing fire, and orders his Assault soldier to toss a grenade inside the vehicle. As it explodes, the camera cuts in close for the second time to show the Sectoid's death. It'll do this a few more times to mark each kill and each new alien introduction. It's a minor intrusion.

The Assault soldier now bursts through the front door of the petrol station and takes down the remaining Sectoid. Unfortunately, there's a downside to speed: the noise made from crashing inside has alerted some Mutons in an adjacent room. These are another classic X-COM alien. In the original game, they were big and brutish, but looked like Mexican wrestlers in unitards. Now they're more menacing, wearing bulky metal suits and blessed with big shoulders and lots of muscle, but they're still recognisably Mutons.

They kill the Assault soldier.

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Get this close and someone is about to die.

Now, imagine that soldier was Popeye Doyle, the recruit you developed over the last 20 hours of play.

If only you'd done things differently. If only you hadn't rushed through the door of the petrol station, but opened it quietly to avoid alerting the Mutons. If only you hadn't gone inside at all, but had your Heavy blow apart the wall with a rocket launcher. If only you'd left Popeye back at base for this one, and brought a team of robots instead.

You made decisions – from what to research, to what to carry, to who to bring, to how to develop those people – and every one of those decisions impacted down a long chain so that now Gene Hackman is dead.

That wasn't the actual name of Jake's dead soldier, of course, and now I can't even remember what it was. His name will feature in the memorial room back at base, though, alongside the name of everyone else you get killed.

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With a grapple, soldiers can move on to rooftops.

“The only way I can say to a player, 'Yeah, I know you love that guy and you worked hard on that guy, but now I'm going to snatch him from you,' is by giving the player complete control,” says Jake. “I will give you complete control of this soldier, and all you have to do is make the right decisions and you can protect him. I think that creates real tension and drama, and I think that defines X-COM.”

To take down the Mutons, Jake goes down the Heavy-blows-a-hole-in-theside- of-the-building-with-the-rocketlauncher route, and that gives his Sniper on the roof line of sight with those inside. She quickly finishes the job. Mission successful. This was an easy one, but success is still a relief.

The missions will get much harder later in the game, when more aliens will appear. A lot of those will be familiar from the original series, including the creepy Cyberdisc. At least one will be new, as Jake showed me artwork for the Man in Black, a skinny, acrobatic alien that can pass for human in a crowd.

After watching Jake play the game, a lot of my fears about it have been put to rest. It looks like XCOM. Still, I'm nervous. Everything I saw was running on a PC, but it was played with an Xbox 360 controller (hence the icons in the screenshots). I asked Jake afterwards if the user interface would be the same across PC and console. He laughed. “No, no, no. Nooo. Oh man, no.”

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Your base's shiny new Geoscape.

So that's a no? “I wouldn't do that to you, are you kidding me? No. We have a team that's doing the PC UI, and our tactical UI is a standalone PC tactical UI.” It's still a work in progress, that's all.

Jake keeps going before I even get the chance to ask about mods. “Because it's on Unreal Engine 3 too, the idea is that there is the ability for modability. It won't be anything that we're committing to for release, but it's very, very easy using Unreal titles to then give people access to the scripts.”

I'd bet on mod tools three months after release. And mods to increase the battlefield soldier count and remove those incredibly brief cutscenes, oh, about twelve seconds after that.

There was one other thing everyone wanted to clear up: 2K Games didn't listen to you. As tempting as it is to think that the announcement of a new, turn-based XCOM comes as a response to the tweeted fanscreams over the first-person shooter, that's not the case. Firaxis have been working on Enemy Unknown since spring 2007.

When they saw people clamouring for the very game they were making, they were desperate to be able to tell them. They waited until it was ready.

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You can move and perform a single action each turn.

“Maybe this is corny, but you like to make people happy. I think the kick we get as game developers is giving people this experience that makes them happy, and so when you think you have something that will make people happy, you want to share that.”

Although what I was shown was a relatively thin slice of the full game, that doesn't mean that's all they've made. “You can play all the way through,” says Jake. “Over Christmas break, I actually did a Let's Play XCOM for our team.”

Let's Plays are diaries of game experiences, often using names of friends for characters, and told on forums or YouTube. “Everybody on the team signed up, and people would send their name and their customisation stats, like Head 3, Skin 4, nickname, and they're all terrible nicknames. And I played through and narrated the whole way.” It's rare to meet a developer who is having so much fun playing his own game, never mind writing about it.

Jake Solomon really does love X-COM. Firaxis are desperate to make sure that you know that, but it's not bullshit. They want you to know how much they care. They want you to know they're aware how much you care, and as corny as it sounds, how hard they're working to make you happy.

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